Precedent for black president in US film and TV

Obama can look for inspiration in a tradition of black American presidents before him.

By SOLOMON ISRAEL
June 4, 2008 21:03
3 minute read.
Precedent for black president in US film and TV

morgan freeman 224 88. (photo credit: David Sifry)

 
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As Barack Obama clears yet another obstacle to becoming America's first black president, he can look for inspiration to a tradition of black American presidents before him - in American film and television. Although some may question Obama's credentials when it comes to fighting terror, fictional president David Palmer, played by African-American actor Dennis Haysbert on the national security-themed thriller show 24, confronted terror during his administration - until he was assassinated. Later in the series, Palmer's brother Wayne (played by D.B. Woodside) was elected as yet another black president, setting a television precedent for an African-American leader of the free world. If these television electoral trends are encouraging to the Obama campaign, however, they should take heed of the next president of the 24 universe. Female actor Cherry Jones has been confirmed to play President Allison Taylor in the upcoming seventh season of the show. Television ratings may have predicted Obama's primary victory over Hillary Clinton, as the most recent female television president appears to have been less popular than the African-American leaders of 24. Commander in Chief, a political drama portraying the first female American president Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) only lasted for one season on ABC before it was cancelled. The show referenced the unlikelihood of a female presidency, as President Allen (originally the vice-president) only comes to power after the sudden death of the president. While Obama has been lauded for his powerful oratory style, he would be hard-pressed to compete against the booming voice of the first African-American movie president, Douglass Dilman, as played by celebrated actor James Earl Jones in the 1972 political drama The Man. Just as the plotline of Commander in Chief implied that a female could only ascend to the presidency after the death of a male president, The Man made explicit mention of the unlikelihood of a black president being elected in America, and Jones' character only came to power through an unlikely fluke of succession. Hillary Clinton questioned Obama's crisis-response capabilities in her now-infamous "red phone" campaign ad. But in the 1998 Hollywood sci-fi action drama Deep Impact, African-American president Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) responded bravely to the ultimate "red phone" moment - the impending destruction of humanity. Freeman's character rallied American ingenuity for a daring outer-space mission to destroy a massive comet threatening the world, in a scenario that any future president seems highly unlikely to face. Various American comedy movies have also featured a black president. Loudmouthed African-American comedian Chris Rock wrote, directed, and starred as presidential candidate Mays Gilliam in the 2003 comedy Head of State (tagline: "The only thing white is the house.)" Chosen as the underdog candidate (again, after the original nominee dies) Rock's character overcomes the odds against him to become America's first black president. Because some have criticized Obama's image as an elite intellectual, his campaign team might wish to study the image of the black president from Mike Judge's cynical 2006 comedy Idiocracy. Set in a dystopian future where Americans have been reduced to a state of unbelievable stupidity as the result of centuries of poor breeding and superficiality, Idiocracy features the brawny President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, a former porn star and champion wrestler played by erstwhile NFL defensive end Terry Alan Crews. However, President Camacho's governing style (which includes antics such as the gratuitous firing of a machine gun during his address to the nation) may not be the type of image Obama would like to cultivate for himself as he moves on to battle John McCain for the presidency. If life truly does imitate art, Barack Obama can rest assured that the long-standing American tradition of black presidents on both the big and little screens has accustomed Americans to the idea of an African-American leader. As the presidential campaign moves into its next phase, Obama's operatives can only hope that American voters will choose to identify him with their favorite film and television presidents - and turn out to vote as faithfully as they tune in to watch.

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